Thursday, April 9, 2009

Videogames' Greatest Obstacle (Hint: It's Not a 50ft Robot)...

As much as I love videogames, I think it's important that we, as gamers, analyze the weaknesses of the medium as well as its strengths. On that note, I believe that great as videogames are, they present the most impenetrable medium to get into.

If you want to watch a movie, all you need to do is not be blind nor deaf, and own a DVD player, VCR, or go to the theatre. If you want to read a book, you need only be literate. A videogame, however, requires a much greater level of entry. Aside from the logistic of the situation (i.e. not everyone owns a console. Let alone the fact that there are so many different systems out there, whereas only a couple forms of movie distribution), there's the fact that every game you play requires you to learn how to play it. What the buttons do, where to save, what the power-ups do, etc, etc... It can at times feel like the first hour of any game is like taking a class on how to play that particular game.

Furthermore, games may have mechanics that just don't appeal to everyone. For example, as much as I love Braid and think it is as close to a perfect game as I've ever played, I also think that it's a very challenging game with its puzzles. Now personally, I love difficult, well-designed puzzles. As such, I felt like Braid was a game made just for me. Yet, at the same time, I realize not everyone likes puzzles, and many who would otherwise enjoy its art, narrative, symbolism, music, etc... may well never finish the game due to it being too hard. A book would never require you to solve a puzzle before turning to the next chapter. I realize books can have "puzzles" in their rich, layered writing, but I would argue Braid also has that, as well as environmental puzzles. Though, you cannot fully experience the former unless you have a rather passionate love for the latter (or consult a walkthrough, which may arguably ruin the experience).

Another example that I can cite from more personal experience, is my disinterest in turn-based RPGs due to their mechanics, even though I may love just about everything else about the genre. I thought the Persona games in particular had an incredibly deep narrative with fascinating themes such as love, death, sex, selfishness, how well one person can really know another, etc, etc. I loved the art design, the story, the characters, the music, the atmosphere... just about everything about Persona 3 and 4 was bursting at the seems with brilliant ideas... except for one thing; I did not enjoy the act of playing them. I hated the slow grind, the menus, the abundance of items... it quite simply was not fun for me between the cutscenes and dialogue. I've always hoped to change my tune on the genre. I've bought every Shin Megami game on the PS2 in hopes that one day the genre would click with me and I'd "get it," and it would be a magical experience as I could then go forth appreciating the true art of the genre minus the ennui that would inevitably set in. Unfortunately, I'm starting to wonder if this will ever happen. I always play these games for about a dozen hours, get bored, think one day I'll get back into them, then never do.

Instead, find myself wishing that Persona 4 was not an RPG. What if it was an adventure/platformer game? I see little reason that it couldn't be. I realize Persona's combat is important insofar that your decisions in the sim aspect effect your attributes in battle. Though I still say they could have done this in a more open-world, real-time setting, ala Psychonauts. The comparison is apt as they both deal with incredibly similar ideas of having levels taking place inside a character's head. At the same time, why couldn't Psychonauts be a turn-based RPG? Personally, I love one genre and nearly hate the other, but that's rather subjective. From what I understand, most JRPG fans feel like Persona 4 has among the most refined combat systems of any RPG every made. Conversely, Psychonaut's platforming is competent, but hardly the best in its genre. As such I will not say one approach is inherently "better" than another, but it raises some interesting questions. Like, "how do you engross a player who doesn't like that particular genre in your narrative ?"

I'm not sure that there's an easy answer to this, but I would like to see more games that don't prescribe themselves to one or two particular genres. A game like Gravity Bone is interesting by virtue of hardly falling into any genre. It's only a 15 minute game, but it's mostly comprised of fetch-quests and one very brief platforming sequence. On paper, this should be incredibly boring, but the rich setting, art style, and music make it a compelling experience with seldom little barrier of entry. I'd also cite Bioshock as a game that gets around this particular problem by being a shooter with no penalty for a game-over, allowing those who don't ordinarily like shooters to still experience the entirety of the game with little frustration.

Don't get me wrong, complex play mechanics can work well for a niche audience. There's nothing wrong with designing an in-depth JRPG like Final Fantasy XII or an hardcore action game like Devil May Cry 3 as there's certainly value in that for those who crave that experience. But let's not fool ourselves; these games are niche and were never designed to be for everyone.

That being said, a game needn't be "for everyone" (if such thing exists), though I feel like if one's goal is to create more narrative-focused work of art, you must be conscious of how the mechanics tie in to the other elements and whether they enhance the central themes of the title, or stand apart from them.

Of course, I may be full of shit as well. There's always that possibility. I'd be happy for any and all feedback on the matter, and if anyone can convince me that Persona 4's menu-based combat and grinding is integral to the rest of the game, I'd like to hear it.
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